Another fallen Goliath

By Budd Schulberg


Another fallen Goliath

Nikolai Valuev was the tallest heavyweight to win the title and now he will go down in the record books as the tallest to lose the title after the lightly touted underdog, Ruslan Chagaev, came away with a deserved victory by outsmarting and outmaneuvering his giant lumbering opponent with sharp counterpunching.

Don King has done a marvelous job over the past couple years in trumping up the Russian giant to the tune of transforming him into his number one heavyweight meal ticket.  And he was able to do it without having Valuev fight any formidable opponents.  Valuev “earned” his title shot after beating Clifford Ettiene and Larry Donald, not exactly top contenders, and then captured the WBA title against another King-owned fighter, John Ruiz in a controversial decision.

It’s impossible not to compare Nikolai Valuev to another ring giant who gained acclaim despite limited talent.  The Italian circus performer turned boxer Primo Carnera was swooped up by mafia boxing bosses Owney Madden and Blinky Palermo in the 30’s and eventually handed the heavyweight title in a suspicious decision against Jack Sharkey.  Perhaps the only heavyweight title fight ever doctored. The public bought the hype about this new Italian sensation, who became the heavyweight champion of the world in an era in which it represented the ultimate glory. 

The “Ambling Alp” went on to further fatten the pockets of his mob owners with “victories” over the durable Paulino Uzcudun and the talented Tommy Loughran until the secret was finally unveiled by the fists of Max Bear, who refused the payoff and pummeled the helpless Carnera, knocking him down eleven times.  Palermo and partner-in-crime Frankie Carbo were of course furious with Baer for ruining their lucrative hoax and allowing the world to know that this supposedly sensational powerhouse was neither powerhouse nor sensational.  He was merely a circus performer who was cast for the part of heavyweight champion despite the fact that he couldn’t really fight. But no one told him that and so he stayed unknowingly in character until the fairytale came to an abrupt and brutal end. 

Chewed up and spit out by Palermo and Carbo after there was no more money to make, Primo Carnera wilted away into oblivion, betrayed and broke, eventually heading back to Italy and to the ring only to take further beatings.  Carnera’s dramatic rise and fall is one of boxing’s many tragic sagas and I used it as the springboard for my novel, The Harder They Fall, to show the extent to which the mob exploited the Italian Goliath and fooled the trusting American public.

After Joe Louis knocked out the “Man Mountain of Italy” as he’d been called, one year after the Baer debacle, further exposing his limited skills, there would be no more title shots or major payoff wins to climb back up the ladder.  The dream was over for Carnera as the long-lost reality that the mob had kept from him by paying off his opponents finally came out into the open.  The mob not only hid the fact that Carnera wasn’t much of a fighter, but also stashed away the millions of betting on Carnera’s “victories” as well as grabbing nearly all his purse money.

Watching Nikolai Valuev get beat this past Saturday against Ruslan Chagaev, a man one foot shorter and one-hundred pounds lighter, brought back memories of poor Carnera being surprised when he actually fought an opponent of relative skill who didn’t take a dive.  Not to say Valuev’s past opponents have laid down, but for God’s sake, he won the title over John “The Quiet Man” Ruiz who holds the notorious record of title fights in which he’s bored us to sleep (including his snooze with Valuev).  Luckily for the Russian giant, who at 7’ 1” would dwarf the 6’ 5” Carnera, he was spared any great embarrassment by fighting Chagaev and not Max Baer who would’ve likely made his work of Carnera seem like a sparring session.

Valuev has improved over the years, but that doesn’t say very much for the Russian who relied on his average jab, gargantuan frame, and weak heavyweight opponents to bring him two wins shy of Rocky Marciano’s heralded record of 49-0.  Now that Rocky is rightfully and thankfully safe in the record books and we don’t have to waste anymore time comparing his record to Valuev’s, it’s time we put big Nikolai more in his own class alongside the likes of Primo Carnera. 

Valuev is certainly bigger and even hairier than Carnera, but as far as boxing skills go, the Ambling Alp may have had the upper hand in the ring.  He couldn’t punch similarly to Valuev, who’s massive frame doesn’t equate to legitimate knockout power, and whose latest performance made the light-punching Chris Byrd look strong.  For all his deficiencies, Carnera did develop a strong jab and had a strong chin to go with it.  He fought better opposition than Valuev despite the fixed-fight syndrome and was quicker on his feet. Who isn’t quicker on their feet than Valuev whose slow-motion movement gives us an idea of what a boxing match underwater would like that?

Let’s not fault this giant of giants too much as he is an unparalleled anomaly in our sport’s history.  He dwarfs even the tallest of former heavyweight champions, knocking the Italian Goliath and others such as Buddy Bear down to size.  It would be a far stretch of imagination to think a man of Valuev’s height could be both nimble on his feet and throw lighting-fast, powerful punches. 

We never expected such brilliance from him, but we believed the Don King infested hype and his undefeated record enough to think he would beat Ruslan Chagaev, a heavyweight nobody until now.  We were wrong, at least I was wrong, as Valuev showed us, as Carnera did seventy-years earlier, that he’s struggling club fighter at best (like most of our sad heavyweight pool) who gained heavyweight stardom more because of his circus-like physique than his fistic ability.

His manager, Wilfried Sauerland, likes to believe that Valuev will continue to show improvement and is worthy of his status as one of today’s top heavyweights.  “Those who have followed Nikolai’s career could see that he has again shown great development today.  He will keep working on his game and I think in at least one year he will be the WBA’s top challenger again.”

If Valuev’s team thought he showed great development in losing unimpressively to Chagaev, then that doesn’t say much about their judgment, and at age thirty-three time is already ticking against him.  The irreplaceable Don King will surely pick the fallen Russian up again and match him against made-to-order opponents in order to get him in line for another title shot next year.  Despite the loss, Valuev is still marketable because boxing fans, particularly in Europe, are awed by his immense size and stature.  Fans will always pay to see if David can slay Goliath just as they did when they flocked in anticipation to watch Baer and Louis dismantle Carnera. 

Only when Goliath is knocked down and humiliated for the world to see does the story end and the curious crowds go away, realizing that the once mighty and mysterious giant is nothing more than a beaten man.  The facade of Primo Carnera was exposed by the formidable fists of Baer and then Louis, who had to finish off the big man after fans somehow weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to their already tarnished Goliath (nor was the mob for that matter).  I’m afraid Valuev will suffer a similar fate in that eventually he will fight a hard-hitting heavyweight with skill and take a terrible beating.  Surely, there aren’t many of the species living in the division these days but it will only take one, maybe a good second rater like Wladimir Klitschko, to cut our Russian Goliath down to size.  Where he belongs.